In so many ways, there are no surprises in reading A Promised Land by President Obama. Suspicious of the slickness of a word-processed draft, Obama explains that he hand wrote his autobiography in which he covers aspects of his life that all readers look for while he also offers some unknown, at least to me, tidbits of his life. And like all autobiographies it is not too critical of the writer. Obama shares much concerning his early life, his Harvard years, the formative years in Chicago, and the lessons learned as a state senator in Illinois.
Obama does not flinch at telling of his struggles with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to get certain measures, such as the ACA, passed. He shares the burdens he felt that came with the wars and tensions of the Middle East. We walk the halls of power in many countries with him as he sorts out their leader’s programs, and how they will affect the United States. His accounting of the Deep-Water Horizon catastrophe is the best that I have ever read. Obama’s telling of the Osama bin Laden affair reads like a good story, but one that is fortunately true. As expected, A Promised Land is chock-full of these and more accounts of Obama’s first term.
We also meet people who Obama allows to mark the pages of his book. There is no veneer placed in front of his wife and their relationship. He allows her words to show who she is, such as her telling him it was okay if he ran for the United States Senate, but, “In fact, you shouldn’t even count on my vote.” Obama admits to his dubbing by Bobby Rush, an experienced Chicago politician, in an early campaign. All the names we anticipate, and others, are here. Best of all, each is presented as they are—real people.
For instance, Obama introduces us to two of the White House senior butlers. Buddy Carter had “been around since the tail end of the Nixon presidency” and Von Everett since Regan. The two senior butlers, we are told, always spoke of previous First Families with discretion, but the Obama family soon realized there was a special bond between them and Carter and Everett. Once, in explaining to the First Family why they continued to dress in tuxedos instead of khakis and polo shirts (as requested by the Obamas) to serve them, Von Everett said, “We just want to make sure you’re treated like every other president.” Then Buddy Carter chimes in, “That’s right. See, you and the First Lady don’t really know what this means to us, Mr. President. Having you here….” He shook his head. “You just don’t’ know.” We are never told if either man traded the tuxedoes for khakis and polo shirts, but we understand their pride in serving the Black First Family.
Obama shares his enthusiasm for his “chance encounters that made the [presidential] campaign come alive.” We meet Edith Childs when Obama keeps a promise made early in his campaign by visiting Greenwood, South Carolina during torrential rains, to speak to about twenty people in the local municipal building. Thinking it a wasted day and planning a quick exit, he and his staff are startled by a voice shouting, “Fired up!” The twenty or so people in the room responded, “Ready to go!” The exchange continued, and Obama was later told how Ms. Childs was well known for her yell, even at the local high school football games. And the crowds always responded in kind. Before long, the sodden candidate admits to feeling “ready to go” and tells us that after his encounter with Ms. Childs he realized that “a campaign—and by extension a democracy-proved to be a chorus rather than a solo act.”
Reading the book, I began to anticipate Obama’s learned lessons and insights that he would share after an experience. They showed his vulnerabilities, his thinking, and his humanity. One such shared moment is his telling of going to the residence late one night after Ms. Obama is asleep, and he thinks as he lies next to her in the dark, “about those days when everything between us felt lighter, when her smile was more constant and our love less encumbered, and my heart would suddenly tighten at the thought that those days might not return.” I submit that a spouse who feels enough to think that way has no need to worry.
One of the most intriguing events Obama shares is the story of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship captained by Richard Phillips from Vermont, and one of the lessons his power as President taught him. Three Somali pirates boarded the ship and when they could not navigate it, they took Phillips hostage and boarded a covered lifeboat, demanding a $2 million ransom. After five days, two of the pirates came out into the open night air and the other could be seen through a window as he held a gun to Phillips’ head. Three Navy SEAL shots, and Phillips was rescued. Yet, Obama reflects: “but I also realized that around the world, in places like Yemen and Afghanistan…the lives of millions of young men like those three dead Somalis (some of them boys, really, since the oldest pirate was believed to be nineteen) had been warped and stunted by desperation, ignorance, dreams of religious glory, the violence of their surroundings, or the schemes of older men. They were dangerous, these young men, often casually cruel…. Still, in the aggregate at least, I wanted somehow to save them—to send them to school, give them a trade, drain them of the hate that had been filling their heads. And yet the world they were a part of, and the machinery I commanded, more often had me killing them instead.” Thus, Obama shares a bit of the burden a president’s power instills on the person.
Each reader will have his or her own reason(s) for reading A Promised Land. The story of an unknown state senator’s political rise is one reason. To gain some insight to the working of political America is another. Famous people, such as a President, are often thought to being known by the general public. However, unless the curtain of invincibility is pulled back to reveal the vulnerabilities and fears and struggles of the famous, all we will ever know is the packaged image. Obama gives the expected stories in a good light for himself, but he also shares himself, and for me that is the best reason to read this first volume chronicling his presidency..